Monday, January 18, 2016

Urbanism and Density

Residential units in Napa, near river
With most of my recent posts, I’ve been attempting to convince people to attend upcoming free public meetings, hosted by the Urban Community Partnership, at which StrongTowns and Urban3 will talk about financially sustainable cities.  The meetings will start on Tuesday evening, January 19, in Santa Rosa.  With the meetings nearly upon us, I probably can’t do much more to convince folks to attend. 

But for anyone still on the fence, I’ll note that the meeting details, a link to the RSVP site, and links to most of my posts about StrongTowns can be found here.

However, the expected content of the meetings remains very much in my head.

Today, I’ll write about a topic that may be useful to those attending the meetings, an aspect of urbanism that seems to puzzle many.

About a year ago, I offered the following dual definition for “urbanism”:

(1) The study, promotion, and implementation of development concepts for settings that are significantly denser in residential, working, and commercial opportunities than rural or suburban locations.

(2) The advocacy of concepts for (1) that meet beneficial goals such as improved walkability, reduced energy consumption, stronger social networks, more stable municipal finances, or other identified positive outcomes.

It’s not a perfect definition.  As I look at it today, I see several changes that I’d still make.  But it’s a reasonable starting point.  And not once does it mention density.  Which may seem puzzling because many people try to equate urbanism and density.

Rarely does a month pass without someone saying to me “I don’t support urbanism because I don’t like density.”

It’s a statement that’s based on a fundamental misunderstanding of urbanist reasoning.  It also leaves the speaker in an awkward position.  I’ll deal with the two in order.

Every urbanist probably has their own unique ranking of the beneficial goals that urbanism tries to attain.  For me, there are a big three that fall in the following order.

The first is environmental.  Even more than municipal finances, slowing the progress of climate change seems the defining challenge of our time.  With energy use being the primary cause of climate change and with over half of all energy going toward transportation and buildings, those are two seem the prime targets for conservation, conservation that can be accomplished by more shared walls, smaller homes with the community serving as a shared living room, and more opportunity to live daily on foot or on bicycle, all of which are accomplished by density.

So my first goal of urbanism isn’t density, it’s energy conservation.  But it turns out that density is the best route to that goal.

My next goal is sustainable municipal finance, particularly on the infrastructure maintenance issue.  And the key factor in raising sufficient property tax revenue to maintain infrastructure is the ratio of assessed value to infrastructure.  Put more residents on the same length of street, water main, sewer, and storm drain and that ratio is improved, so density is once again a key factor.

So my second goal of urbanism isn’t density, it’s better municipal finances.  But it turns out again that density is a good route to that goal.

My third goal is social.  I find it satisfying to walk out my front door knowing that groceries are a half block to my right, that the screw needed to repair a broken railing is a block to my left, and that my dentist and accountant can be reached by a bus that stops right in front of me.  I find it a more satisfying to live my days encountering other people by brushing shoulders against them rather than viewing each other through windshields.

But the only way for the businesses to survive in walkable settings is for enough folks to live within walkable range to sustain them.

So my third and final goal of urbanism isn’t density, it’s a social setting that feels right to me.  And it turns out yet again that density is a good route to that goal.

The pattern should be obvious.  Urbanism isn’t density.  Urbanism is other laudable goals and density just happens to be the consistent path to those goals.

Being against urbanism because one doesn’t like density is like being against financial planning because one doesn’t like saving.  Saving is only a path to the real goals of financial planning, such as home purchase, college expenses, and secure retirement.  And density is only a path to the real goals of slowing climate change, improving municipal finances, and making better social settings.

And that gets us to the awkwardness of arguing urbanism using the density argument.  It leaves the speaker in the position of arguing against combating climate change, sustainable municipal finances, and stronger social connections.  Sure, one can argue for mandatory conversion to electrical vehicles, higher property tax rates, and more parks, but those are three tough and probably unwinnable arguments to make.

It’s easier to become an urbanist and to look for ways to make density more palatable.

Next time, I’ll return to a topic I’d hoped to cover before the New Year, a plan that was derailed when the StrongTowns visit claimed my attention.  I’ll write about the urbanist organizations that get my support and might be worthy of yours.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment